Alternative to Casinos: Labs
There has been a lot of local debate in Philadelphia recently about the pros and cons of bringing casinos to the city to generate tax and tourist revenue. I recently contributed some ideas to a listserv discussion about alternatives, which was started by Brion J. Shreffler. Brion proposed, in this article from the Green City Journal, that we build a soccer field instead.
Brion’s point is that the City should listen more to the people who live here, and that we should also be thinking about development that will improve their lives, not just provide more dead-end service jobs. I entirely agree. At some point, though, we have to propose reasonable alternatives if we don’t want casinos (and similar projects) to come to the City. Here were my thoughts in reply:
First off: I like the idea of a soccer field. The Vermonter in me likes the idea of big, green, open spaces. The hipster transplant in me likes the idea of supporting a less commercialized sport. But casinos have something that soccer fields don’t, and can’t, have: economic density.
What I mean is this. A soccer field requires you to create a huge open space, which you can’t put anything on top of. (I am assuming, of course, that this is an outdoor field.) So in order to make it profitable and generate economic growth — which I am assuming is at least one major goal here — you have to build outward. When you’re talking about building inside the city limits, that’s an issue. A casino, by contrast, can be as tall as you want, and every floor you put in adds another set of jobs, without increasing the geographical footprint. Casinos are open 24 hours a day. Casinos are places where people expect to spend a lot of money. All this adds up to exponentially higher revenue. So, even if I were a city councilman of the purest ilk, with only the public purpose in mind, I might still vote for a casino over a soccer field, knowing that improvements in quality of life generally follow economic growth, not the other way around. Of course, there are other factors to consider: revenue lost to the state is one, and the fact that casinos can’t really be expected to improve the neighborhood is another. No one could make that decision without looking at a lot of numbers very carefully.
So, if we’re seeking an alternative, we have a few goals (not necessarily in order of precedence): first, more economic density than a soccer field, i.e., more jobs and more cashflow in the same amount of space. Second, improving the quality of life for those who live and work in the area. Third, not losing revenue to the state, if possible. And it would be nice to avoid stagnation and brain-drain, too. These are a tough set of criteria to maximize simultaneously, for sure, but it’s not impossible.
My idea? Build commercial laboratory space. You can make a lab building as tall as a casino hotel, so long as you provide the right infrastructure (e.g., service elevators to move large, heavy equipment to all floors). Commercial labs provide jobs for people of all levels of education, from GED to Ph.D. This means there’s upward mobility for people who work in them, not just dead-end service jobs, and that people moving to the neighborhood will be diversely educated, combating brain-drain and “cultural stagnation.” The research performed by labs has the potential to be tremendously beneficial to the public, both locally and globally. And finally, laboratories reverse the pattern of revenue flow from local to state governments that casinos have: labs spend enormous amounts of money on research and manufacturing materials, and much of the money that pays for those materials comes from government grants and research contracts.
Building laboratory facilities has the potential to meet all of our goals, then (except for having grass around…sigh). And it would do a lot for the reputation of the city: imagine if Philadelphia was on the forefront of scientific research, instead of simply an inland spot to gamble. Plus, whenever the city needed contract research of its own, whether for studying traffic patterns or cleaning up river water, the money would stay here.
Of course, the devil is always in the details. There are probably many problems with this proposal, not the least of which may be the lack of city planners of purest ilk. Still, I think it’s a worthy idea, if for no other reason than that it highlights some of the issues involved. Any comments?